Troubles Talk: Helping or Hurting?

by Maureen McKane, LCSW

Talking troubles to a friend can make things better, or worse. If it becomes too much, there is a way out.

There was a time when my life went upside down. My mouth hit automatic pilot. Caring friends showed up and I felt compelled to tell them, in endless detail, how bad things were. Luckily, I also decided to talk to a therapist. That way I still have those friends.

It is important to share our troubles, our vulnerabilities. That is how we normalize when we feel crazy and how we lift the darkness that sometimes threatens to engulf. A friend is the one who cares enough to listen and is brave enough to share in turn.

That is until it goes all wrong. There are times when listening begins to feel burdensome. I look back to my own hard times and how often I repeated my story. My friends must have thought I was dog paddling in my ocean of troubles.

When does troubles talk cross the line? Consider these signs:

  1. Your friend has told the story many times, to others as well as you, or many times to you.
  2. Telling does not bring relief.
  3. The story doesn’t change from one telling to the next.
  4. Your words of comfort have no effect.

In this situation talking troubles only digs in to a hopelessness that can become habit. Why, then does your friend keep going? Usually fear is driving the emotion. To face ourselves means we must change. Change, to many people is more terrifying than the comfort of familiar pain. It is a black ravine dropping off, bottomless. Better to stand on the canyon rim and protest, than plunge into an unknown future.

By contrast, consider a time when you blamed someone else for your upset, only to find when things calmed down, that you could have, even should have, handled things differently yourself. At that moment your may be sheepish, but you are also relieved.

There is a sense of competency and empowerment when we stop and recognize our own role in things. When we blame another we are experiencing the false power of anger. The anger says, “You are justified: your indignity makes you strong.” In truth, anger weakens us because the other person has total dominion over their behavior. Your complaints won’t change their personality.

When a friend shows the signs, here is what you can say. “It breaks my heart to listen to your story. I feel helpless every time we have this conversation. I want to help you and I know I can’t. You deserve to feel good again. Why don’t you talk to someone who is trained to really help.” Find your own words, but be sure they have these elements:

  • Your tone and words show you genuinely care.
  • You admit to your own limits.
  • You express confidence that there is a way to get better.

Everyone has the possibility for a better outcome. It’s okay to hit hard times and cave in to fear. It is also okay to look down the ravine and find out that you have what it takes after all.